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JMU 'in awe' after advancing to Women's College World Series

JMU 'in awe' after advancing to Women's College World Series

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This year's Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City features UCLA, Oklahoma and five other programs that have been there before.

It also features a team from Harrisonburg that has advanced to college softball's grandest stage for the first time.

The James Madison softball team arrived in Oklahoma City on Monday, one day after winning an NCAA super regional series at Missouri to earn its first Women's College World Series berth.

"We walk in the hotel, there's Women's College World Series banners everywhere. I think the girls are kind of in awe," JMU coach Loren LaPorte said Monday night in a phone interview. "It's kind of cool to see their faces right now when they get to experience this. Just trying to take in every moment."

Those moments include Wednesday's ESPN shoot, when the Dukes will get to flex in front of the cameras for those teases that will run during the game telecasts.

"Our team doesn't get to do that a whole lot," LaPorte said. "They're going to be really excited about that."

JMU (39-2) had fallen short in its first two appearances in the super regionals — in 2016, when Megan Good and Bath County graduate Jailyn Ford were the team's stars, and in 2019.

But the Dukes beat Missouri 7-2 on Sunday to win the best-of-three series 2-1.

"Pretty remarkable," LaPorte, 35, said. "Everybody that plays this sport, when they start rec ball, that's what you dream of when you play softball, getting to Oklahoma City. … So they just turned another gear and we were able to get it done."

The Dukes will face No. 1 overall seed Oklahoma (50-2), which won its fourth NCAA title in 2017, at noon Thursday to kick off the eight-team, double-elimination event.

“We're just going to tell them, ‘Yes, this is a dream to get here, but good Lord, let's do some damage,’” LaPorte said. “It's not just about getting here. It's about showing everybody we belong.”

LaPorte was known as Loren Messick when she played shortstop for Roanoke College.

After serving as a Roanoke assistant, LaPorte was hired by then-Radford coach Mickey Dean in 2009 to be an assistant with the Highlanders. When Dean left Radford to become JMU’s coach in the summer of 2012, he brought LaPorte with him.

Dean left JMU in the summer of 2017 to take the reins at Auburn. LaPorte was named the interim head coach for the 2018 season, then was rewarded with the permanent role.

LaPorte and her husband, former Roanoke College basketball player Josh LaPorte, have a 5-year-old son and an 8-month-old daughter.

Will the three-time Colonial Athletic Association coach of the year be courted by a school from a major conference, as Dean was?

"I love JMU. JMU's not a stepping-stone for me," LaPorte said. "My family is three hours away, in the Northern Neck. Josh, he's from Staunton.

"For my son and my daughter to be able to grow up with their cousins and their grandparents, it means everything. So I'm not really concerned with the Power Five and all that."

JMU is the first team from outside the power conferences to reach the Women's College World Series since Louisiana in 2014.

"Do we have to work harder than some of the Power Five schools? Absolutely," LaPorte said. "It's just that mental approach you take with your program and not allowing them to feel like just because they're not in the Power Five they can't get it done.

"We get a lot of blue-collar kids that want to work. And we have to work in order to compete with the Power Fives."

JMU and Georgia are the only unseeded teams in this year's Women's College World Series field. It is the first time since 2012 that any unseeded teams have reached Oklahoma City.

The Dukes start a quartet of fourth-year juniors and a trio of fifth-year seniors.

Fifth-year senior ace Odicci Alexander, who earned third-team All-America honors in 2018 and 2019, has gone 4-1 with one save in this year's NCAA tournament. She is 16-1 with a 1.14 ERA overall this season and is also batting .343.

After suffering a torn hamstring on March 12, Alexander did not play again until April 17.

"She learned from sitting in the dugout," LaPorte said. "It kind of grounded her and made her not take things for granted.

"When she got back, … she was just ‘eyes on the prize.’ And I think everybody kind of … jumped on board with her."

The CAA champion Dukes made the NCAAs for the eighth straight time.

JMU went 3-0 to win the Knoxville Regional, beating Liberty and No. 9 overall seed Tennessee before defeating Liberty again in the regional final. The Dukes then took care of No. 8 overall seed Missouri in the Columbia Super Regional.

"Being able to do it on the road … at two SEC schools, at Tennessee and then Missouri, it's pretty incredible. Because I can tell you, the atmosphere was intense," LaPorte said with a laugh. "Being able to handle the opposing team's fans, … we actually thrive from it instead of being intimated."

JMU is the first team from the commonwealth to make the Women's College World Series since Virginia Tech in 2008.

"We've had a lot of talented teams [at JMU], but I think overall it takes more than talent to get to this point," LaPorte said. "This is probably the closest the team has ever been."

The team includes freshman Meredith Wells, a Lord Botetourt graduate who made three appearances in April.

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Mark Berman covers Virginia Tech men’s basketball and many other teams at the university. He also helps cover other colleges, including Radford, VMI, Roanoke, Washington and Lee and Ferrum.

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